Water & Drought

New state water chief is married to SoCal water strategist. Critics say that’s too close

Karla Nemeth is sworn in last week as the new director of California Department of Water Resources. Nemeth’s marriage to a Southern California water official is drawing criticism from north state water advocates who worry it will further tilt state water policy toward sending more water south.
Karla Nemeth is sworn in last week as the new director of California Department of Water Resources. Nemeth’s marriage to a Southern California water official is drawing criticism from north state water advocates who worry it will further tilt state water policy toward sending more water south. California Department of Water Resources

Critics who say state water policy tilts too far toward Southern California got additional ammunition last week, when Gov. Jerry Brown named a new director to run his Department of Water Resources.

New DWR Director Karla Nemeth is married to Tom Philp, an executive strategist with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Nemeth’s duties include overseeing the State Water Project, which delivers water from Northern California to the southern half of the state, and forging ahead with Brown’s controversial Delta tunnels project.

Metropolitan, which serves 19 million people, is the State Water Project’s largest customer. It’s also a key backer of the $17.1 billion tunnels proposal, which is fiercely opposed by many elected officials in Northern California as well as Delta farmers and environmentalists.

In the contentious world of California water policy, battle lines tend to be drawn between north and south, and anything that would appear to give Metropolitan more influence is met with instant suspicion among water advocates in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Sacramento Valley.

“Putting someone who is in charge of DWR who you might say is married to the Metropolitan Water District in more ways than one sort of makes sense if you look at it from the governor’s standpoint,” said George Hartmann, a Stockton attorney who represents Delta farmers. “But is it ethical? I don’t think so. Is it proper? I don’t think so.”

Ethics specialists say the situation is complicated. Robert Stern, co-author of California’s Political Reform Act, an anti-government corruption law, said there’s nothing illegal about Nemeth running DWR while being married to a Metropolitan employee. And so long as her decision-making is limited to issues affecting statewide water policy, there is no ethical violation, either.

The relationship could be problematic, however, if Nemeth has to make a decision that specifically affects Metropolitan, he said.

Hana Callaghan, a government ethics expert at Santa Clara University, said the relationship creates the perception of a conflict of interest, and she agreed that Nemeth should shy away from decisions involving Metropolitan directly. “It does raise some red flags,” she said.

State officials said they see no problem.

Nemeth and Philp’s relationship breaks no rules and “poses no conflict,” DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon said in an email. “Karla’s marriage has long been public knowledge and has no bearing on her work for the state,” Mellon said. “Whether at the Resources Agency or now at the Department of Water Resources, her focus remains on doing what’s best for all of California, and her experience speaks for itself.”

Nemeth had been deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, a role that already put her on the front lines of the debate over the tunnels and other state water policy issues. Her new salary is $194,600.

Philp, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee, is an executive strategist who works on communications for Metropolitan, including its advocacy of the tunnels. His salary is $211,723, according to the public employee salary website Transparent California.

Philp declined to comment through a Metropolitan spokesman, but executives at the Southern California agency said the marriage doesn’t raise ethical concerns.

“I don’t believe there’s any conflict there at all,” said Roger Patterson, Metropolitan’s assistant general manager.

Nemeth’s appointment comes as the DWR has been criticized for its handling of the Oroville Dam spillway crisis last winter. An independent forensic team the state hired to determine what caused the spillway to fail said the crisis was caused in part because DWR was too focused on the “water delivery needs” of its customers to the south, and gave dam safety less of a priority.

State water contractors, such as Metropolitan, store water behind the dam and pay for its upkeep.

The forensic team also alleged that top DWR officials made a series of decisions during the crisis that eventually triggered the two-day evacuation of 188,000 Northern Californians in part because they were worried about preserving the water supply for Southern California.

Officials at DWR and Metropolitan refuted those claims, saying the integrity of the dam and the safety of downstream residents were their only concerns.

Long before the Oroville emergency spillway nearly failed, north state critics argued Metropolitan enjoyed far too much influence over state water policies, especially when it came to the Delta, the hub of California’s water delivery network.

Brown’s administration insists the $17.1 billion tunnels project won’t increase deliveries south. Instead, officials say it will allow the massive pumping stations at the south end of the Delta to operate more reliably while improving the environment in the West Coast’s largest estuary. In recent months, state officials have been weighing whether to downsize the project to a single tunnel. Metropolitan is the only major water agency to have agreed to pay for the project in its current, two-tunnel form.

Tunnels opponents adamantly dispute the Brown administration’s claims that the tunnels won’t harm the environment and Delta farms and cities. They say the insatiable water demands of Southern California will ensure that more water is pumped than what Brown’s office promises.

In the Delta, “Stop the Tunnels” signs are common along roadsides and in store fronts. Anti-tunnels advocates, such as Hartmann, the Stockton attorney, call the project a blatant south state “water grab.”

When Metropolitan bought several parcels of land in the Delta to facilitate the project, critics called it another “Chinatown.” Northern Californians often invoke the the 1974 movie staring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, which presented a fictionalized version of how the city of Los Angeles took water away from farmers in the Owens Valley in 1913.

Nemeth’s appointment drew immediate criticism from the anti-tunnels camp. Soon after it was announced, anti-tunnels groups began circulating information from Transparent California that showed Nemeth was at one point on Metropolitan’s payroll, earning a six-figure salary.

Patterson, the Metropolitan assistant general manager, acknowledged that Nemeth’s name appeared on Metropolitan’s books from 2012 to 2014. But he said Nemeth was never a Metropolitan employee and her presence on the payroll was more of a technicality.

In reality, Patterson said Nemeth was working for the state Natural Resources Agency under an inter-governmental agreement, focusing on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the previous name for the tunnels project. The tunnels project now goes by “California WaterFix.”

The state paid her salary, although the state and federal water contractors working on the Delta project, such as Metropolitan, reimbursed the state, according to Patterson.

Patterson said the arrangement changed when her duties at the Resources Agency were broadened in 2015, and Nemeth’s position then shifted to the state’s payroll.

Jay Lund, the director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, says Nemeth’s relationship with Philp isn’t as controversial as critics make it out to be.

He said the world of water policy is a small one, so it’s natural that like-minded people with similar interests would sometimes get married.

Lund said there weren’t many complaints raised in the north state when a former DWR director, Mark Cowin, was married to a prominent environmental attorney.

“Highfalutin people have highfalutin spouses,” Lund said. “Some of this comes with the territory.”

One Delta farmer talks about his family history and why he opposes Gov. Jerry Brown's tunnels plan.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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